A huge offseason lies ahead for the Carolina Hurricanes, fresh off a deeply disappointing second-round defeat at the hands of the New York Rangers. The team looked primed for much more after a regular season rife with excitement, promise, and, at times, utter dominance, yet they once again fell short when it mattered most. Now, a highly-important summer awaits the front office regime headed by general manager Don Waddell, with a multitude of key players up for new contracts and clear areas of concern needing to be addressed on the trade market or free agency.
A few particularly interesting potential targets are already reportedly available, including in the “elite goal scoring” category where the ‘Canes have arguably been short for the entirety of the Rod Brind’Amour era. While the long summer months ahead provide plenty of time to get into the specifics, there is one area of the equation we can go ahead and take inventory of: the prospect group.
The farm is presently important for two reasons. First, perhaps a player or two from this group are prepared to make a push for the big club and help with some of those shortcomings (the guy at the top, especially, seems more than ready for the show). Secondly, these are likely the biggest trade chips the Hurricanes will be willing to offer as a team competing to win now, if the front office is prepared to truly dive in and reel a big fish on the trade market. The Hurricanes’ once-elite prospect pool is not quite so deep in the present, thanks to a few trades, graduations, and even a couple simple regressions. However, development is not linear, meaning that more than a few players not listed today could easily jump back in next season; these rankings will always be fluid for these reasons, among others.
Despite that mild decline in the overall strength of the system, there are still many intriguing youngsters working their way up towards the NHL, and all three positions provide pieces who project to play in the top half of a roster. The Hurricanes do not pick until the late-second round in this year’s draft, so the pool will likely thin out even more in the coming years. This makes it all the more imperative that the team either cashes in and takes that next step in the present, or that things begin to click for a few lower-down players in the off-season and into next year. So, without further ado, let’s get to the ranking.
Just Missed the Cut
As has been the case for a while, the strength of the Hurricanes pipeline truly lies in its depth. Seth Jarvis, who has obviously graduated from prospect and rookie eligibility, was the only true star prospect in the system, but a few have popped up that could potentially come into that category with another step forward. However, far more than 10 players have a chance to contribute at the NHL level, so here are the three best of the rest who may not have made the list, but certainly still deserve a mention.
Eetu Makiniemi (Goalie, Chicago Wolves) – Before Pyotr Kochetkov came overseas and took the reins as the heir apparent between the pipes, it was Makiniemi who was stealing the show with Chicago of the American Hockey League (AHL). He would have easily made the top-10 — heck, it may have been him, not Kochetkov who got the late-year call after the goalie injuries — had he not gone down with his own significant injury that kept him out for over half the season. He made a great impression while healthy, finishing his first year in North America with an 11-2-1 record, .922 save percentage (SV%), and 2.06 goals-against average (GAA). The highly-athletic Finn needs to get and stay healthy, as he could be “the guy” in Chicago next year with a chance to re-stake his claim as a big piece of the future puzzle in net.
Ronan Seeley (Left-Handed Defenseman, Everett Silvertips) – A former seventh-round draft pick whose steep ascension saw him paired with first-overall pick Owen Power on a stacked Team Canada blue line at the 2022 World Juniors, Seeley is a modern defenseman with elite skating ability and a rapidly developing offensive game. He potted 11 goals and 44 points in 52 Western Hockey League (WHL) games, and, alongside his sound defensive play, looks to be really nice late-round find by the Carolina scouting department.
Patrik Puistola (Winger, Jukurit Mikkeli) – Puistola is a polarizing prospect, with myriad questions surrounding his skating, how his game may translate to the NHL level, and consistency. However, he remains a highly talented goal scorer who, even after a rough start to the year, managed to put up 16 goals in one of the best leagues in the world as a 21-year-old. The move from JYP to Jukurit seemed to pay big dividends, and Puistola and the Hurricanes will hope that confidence and production will carry over into next season. His rights expire on June 1, 2023, so he needs to prove himself worth a contract this winter.
10. Joey Keane (Right-Handed Defenseman)
2021-22 Stats: Chicago Wolves, AHL: 7 goals, 26 assists in 62 games; 8 assists in 14 playoff games
To kick off the actual top 10, we have a slick-skating defenseman who has shown a willingness to bang bodies and can contribute offensively, as he has done consistently at the AHL level. Keane may not be the power-play quarterback in the NHL he’s asked to be in the minors, but he has still showcased the vision and a hard shot that suggest he will make some level of an impact in that end at the sport’s highest level. On the flip side, he takes too many penalties (81 penalty minutes on the year) and can make some riskier-than-necessary plays at times, things he’ll have to improve upon as he continues maturing.
Acquired in the trade that sent winger Julien Gauthier to the New York Rangers, Keane has often had the look of a defenseman who could hold his own at the NHL level, including in his two-game NHL cameo over the last two seasons (one appearance per year). Defensemen take longer to develop than forwards, and he’s only 22-years-old, but there’s a good chance he makes a case for NHL time in the fall of 2022. He looks like a solid bottom-four piece that fits well in the system with well-rounded play, solid transition ability, and the ability to play at a high pace.
9. Vasili Ponomarev (Center/Winger)
Moscow Spartak, Kontinental Hockey League (KHL): 1 goal, 1 assist in 14 games
Chicago Wolves, AHL: 3 goals, 7 assists in 11 games; 1 goal, 4 assists in 13 playoff games.
The KHL is inherently difficult to scout or draw conclusions from, especially considering the way Russian management often treats players they expect to bolt for North America (hello, Marat Khustnutdinov, among many others). Early in the year, Ponomarev rarely cracked the lineup, and when he did, was often playing single-digit minutes. However — and it’s a small sample size, so you can only draw so much — he made a very loud impression during his arrival in North America, forcing his way into a very deep Chicago lineup and scoring at nearly a point-per-game clip to finish out the regular season.
While I’ve listed Ponomarev as a center and winger, he is at his best down the middle. His NHL future likely lies there thanks to his two-way effectiveness and relentless motor that sees him in the center of the play constantly while he’s on the ice, but he does have the ability to succeed in both spots. He’s not a superstar in the offensive end, but his skill game does seem to be coming along more rapidly than expected. In many ways, he’s not unlike our number one prospect on this list, as a responsible forward who simply finds ways to make an impact, including always seeming to be in the right place at the right time and carving out space in the dirty areas, which regularly allows him to factor into goals.
It will be very exciting to track him in his second year of pro hockey in North America, especially after that aforementioned number one prospect possibly leaves a perfect role open for him to assume. Ponomarev is very versatile and his forechecking ability fits very well in the Hurricanes system, so, if his offense continues to progress, he could shoot up this list moving forward.
8. Alexander Nikishin (Left-Handed Defenseman)
Moscow Spartak, KHL: 8 goals, 4 assists in 46 games; 1 goal, 1 assist in 3 playoff games
It’s hard not to rank a guy with the nickname “Boom” on the awesomeness of that sobriquet alone, but Nikishin’s play this season more than earned him this spot. The 6-foot-4, 216-pound blueliner was largely known for his throwback, bruising style, but really put himself on the map this season with 12 points in arguably/probably the second-best league in the world. That point total doesn’t seem crazy impressive, and scouting points alone is dangerous business, but considering the way his deadly shot (eight of his points were goals) became a huge threat for a player who was already tracking towards an NHL future thanks to his defensive game alone, it’s easy to buy into his season. Those 12 points led all U21 defenders in the KHL, and were the seventh-highest total amongst U21 players at any position.
Nikishin is still only 20 years old, and though he’s likely physically mature already, the fact that he’s still got a good bit of developing to do is a pretty scary thought (largely with the typical areas that a young defenseman must learn, like processing the play and learning when to attack and when to make safe plays). He flashed far more one-on-one skill and skating ability than you’d expect for a player of his style and size, and there could be even more offense to come as he improves as a facilitator. The only relative downside to the 2020 third-round pick is where he plays. The earliest he will come stateside is 2024, and that’s if he doesn’t re-sign to stay in Russia. He’ll certainly be one to track over the next couple years, because he looks like a potential top-four defenseman down the road with a very well-rounded skillset.
7. Noel Gunler (Winger)
Brynas, Swedish Hockey League (SHL): 13 goals, 10 assists in 52 games
Chicago Wolves, AHL: 3 goals, 2 assists in 11 games; 1 goal, 1 assist in 9 playoff games
This is one of the tougher rankings, because the ceiling here is legitimately massive. Gunler has had some highly impressive moments since arriving stateside from his native Sweden towards the end of the AHL season, and has made an impact thanks to his deep arsenal of offensive tools. He has the best release in the entire system, can make plays for others almost as well as he can score, and, when he’s on, can absolutely dominate with his hands, size (6-foot-2, but must fill out his 180-pound frame) and reach.
The questions about his motor and off-puck play have quieted a bit, but there is still some unknown as to whether Gunler has the pace in his game to effectively fit into the Hurricanes system. Another year with Chicago’s excellent head coach Ryan Warsofsky in Chicago will provide a better picture of this answer (Warsofsky is a heck of a buffer between Brind’Amour and the minor league players, and the organization should enjoy their time with him cause an NHL gig is coming sooner than later). I expect he’ll take a significant step forward with another year to get used to North American ice and the pro-style game. This ranking could end up being too low, because Gunler still very much possesses the upside of a top-six, 30-plus-goal-scorer.
6. Ryan Suzuki (Center/Winger)
Chicago Wolves, AHL: 7 goals, 7 assists in 34 games
This one hurts, because Suzuki has taken a lot of positive steps over the last couple of years when he was on the ice, and presently not only looks the part of the speedy, skilled playmaker that got him drafted in the first round, but also a versatile player that could fit into a bottom-six role and give you some gritty minutes, too. He’s also played both wing and center effectively, further proving his adaptability and willingness to do whatever is asked.
Unfortunately, the “when he was on the ice” disclaimer has really clouded the future of the silky-mitted forward. Suzuki has appeared in just 60 games in the two seasons since he’s turned pro. The eye injury was scary enough (from “Ryan Suzuki won’t let eye injury stop his world junior and NHL goals”, The Athletic, 11/12/20), but, this season, it seemed like it was always something minor that instead ended up keeping him out for weeks on end. With as little information as is provided about AHL injuries, the unknown is even greater, but it’s enough for me to drop him multiple spots.
On the bright side, Suzuki is still very young (won’t turn 22 until May of 2023), so there is plenty of time for him to reverse the narrative. Although he often seemed to take a few games to get going, as basically any player would when they were out for a ton of time and trying to re-acclimate to pro hockey, he always seemed to find the switch and start to make an impact in some form or fashion after getting his feet back under him. He possesses some of the best playmaking and overall offensive instincts in the entire system, but, being that he was raw when drafted, continuing to not get reps is a big red flag. I won’t call 2022-23 a make-or-break year because of how young he is, but he really needs to stay on the ice and start making a push before too much longer.
5. Jamieson Rees (Center/Winger)
Chicago Wolves, AHL: 7 goals, 17 assists in 61 games; 2 goals, 4 assists in 13 playoff games
If you know me at all or follow me on Twitter, you know Rees has been a favorite of mine since he was drafted, and I began to study his game closely. He fits a big need for the Hurricanes as a relentlessly-motored, but still highly skilled, winger with high-end vision and slick hands. His AHL play was moderately disappointing early in the season for a somewhat-significant stretch, especially after there was some talk of him making the roster in training camp (well-deserved, he looked far from out of place in preseason games). However, late in the year things seemed to click, and he’s followed that up into the postseason, as Chicago continues to make their impressive run towards a Calder Cup.
Rees’ size has always been mildly alarming because of how physical and aggressive his play style is, but he’s largely stayed healthy minus a few minor bumps and bruises during his AHL career. Though it may surprise box score scouts, if he can continue to improve over the offseason and carry the confidence he’s playing with right now into camp next year, there’s a real chance he makes the opening night roster — especially if the Hurricanes sacrifice a pending free agent or two in order to bring in a top player.
He has regularly stuck out as a tone setter on a stacked AHL squad with a multitude of professional veterans that can make it really tough to earn significant ice time. Still this has allowed Rees to show his versatility. He’s proven he could be an option for the Hurricanes in the near future, where he could contribute pretty much anywhere in the lineup. On the fourth line, he’d provide big-time offensive ability for a bottom-sixer while still bringing the energy you want in that role. With his skill, though, he could easily slide up to a second line slot, where he could dance around defenders and hit, say, a sniper like Jarvis or Svechnikov for great chances. Expect him to be a ball of energy, and a whole lotta fun for Hurricanes fans to watch, when his NHL debut comes.
4. Ville Koivunen (Winger)
(Karpat, SM-Liiga) 11 goals, 18 assists, 29 points in 53 games
Finland (World Juniors Championships): 2 goals, 2 assists in 2 games
The Hurricanes do love their second-round forwards from Finland, with star Sebastian Aho, New Jersey’s Janne Kuokkanen, and Florida’s Eetu Luostarinen all carving out (to somewhat varying degrees) nice careers as young, skilled forwards from the Scandinavian country. Koivunen looks like he could very well be the second-best of those four after a very nice Draft+1 season that saw him post the third-most points in Liiga amongst U20 players, trailing only New York Islanders second-rounder Aatu Raty and Topi Niemela, a Toronto draft choice and one of the best defensive prospects in hockey.
Though he doesn’t have any singular standout skill that makes him a can’t-miss prospect, Koivunen gets it done with elite hockey sense and a well-rounded offensive package. Smooth and smart are the first two words that come to mind watching him. If you think about it, that’s quite similar to the scouting report once provided about that second-rounder from Karpat, back in 2015. Now, don’t yell at me when he doesn’t turn into the star Aho is – that’s not particularly likely, of course. However, not unlike Aho the prospect of about a half-decade ago, some question his skating, but not his ability to distribute and finish at a high-end level. If he can add some explosiveness in his stride to go along with his sweet hands (like his predecessor did) he has a chance to be a highly-effective top-six producer at the NHL level.
3. Pyotr Kochetkov (Goalie)
Carolina Hurricanes, NHL: 3-0-0, .902 SV%, 2.42 GAA in 3 games
Chicago Wolves, AHL: 13-1-1, .921 SV%, 2.09 GAA; 2-1-0, .941 SV%, 1.94 GAA in 3 playoff games
Nizhny Novgorod Torpedo, KHL: 10-10-2, .926 SV%, 2.23 GAA
Now comes the fun part, as the final three players on the list all look like impact future NHLers. Funny enough, the guy I’m ranking third arguably has the most star potential of the three, but, you know… goalies. They’re just difficult to judge, and you really never know which direction their development is going to go until about their mid-20s. Still, if Kochetkov reaches his potential and becomes the elite netminder he’s fully capable of being, he will probably make the biggest impact of all the players listed. He looks like he has a great chance to be the stud, homegrown goalie the Hurricanes have been looking for for… well forever, really (depending on your feelings on Cam Ward, anyway).
2021-22 was a meteoric rise for the Russian goaltender, as he went from carrying a mediocre KHL team, to dominating the AHL, to starting playoff games at the NHL level in a span of just a couple months. He answered a lot of questions along the way, although there were some times the 22-year-old was in a bit over his head come playoff time. That’s no reason to sour on him, though, as the athleticism and competitiveness still present a ceiling as formidable as any goalie prospect the Hurricanes have had. He still needs to work on his rebound control and consistency, as with most goalies his age. While he may be ready to play the 1B role in 2022-23, a full year in Chicago could be a boon for his development, and the Hurricanes’ current tandem remains under contract. With their injury-proneness he’d likely see NHL time, anyway.
Regardless, it’s only a matter of time before Kochetkov is handed the reins, whether that be at the conclusion of Frederik Andersen’s contract, or before. He has everything you would draw in a modern goalie prospect prototype, and he’ll only get better as he acclimates to a new continent, and new style of hockey.
2. Scott Morrow (Right-Handed Defenseman)
UMass-Amherst, Hockey East, NCAA: 13 goals, 20 assists in 37 games
Cale Makar 2.0!
I’m sorry for even saying that — I promise, it’s a joke. If anyone tries to compare any player, especially one a year or two away from even sniffing the NHL, to the most dynamic defenseman in hockey, you should check their temperature. However, Morrow has made many-a believer in his one year of NCAA hockey, and there are some similarities to their games beyond playing at the same school and dominant freshman seasons. Morrow has the kind of poise and ability to process the play rarely seen in NHL defensemen, much less teenagers a year after being drafted. Paired with the skating ability, hands, creativity, and hockey sense to be an absolute force both in transition and on the power play at the pro level, his NCAA scoring totals are unlikely to be a mirage.
The fact that Morrow held up in Hockey East straight out of high school is extremely impressive to start with, and it was especially hard to foresee the level of dominance he displayed as a frosh. This included some nice moments in the defensive end, which was not his strength, but not the weakness some expected, either. His edgework allows him to stay in front of even the shiftier college forwards, and on occasions when he got caught up ice he was often able to recover thanks to his straight-line speed. More than anything, he just needs reps and to continue to fill out his 6-foot-2 frame, but the Hurricanes look like they have another potential home-grown defensive stud on their hands here; one who will quarterback their power play and create a ton of offense from the back end, likely from the moment he arrives in Raleigh.
1. Jack Drury (Center)
Chicago Wolves, AHL: 20 goals, 32 assists in 68 games; eight goals, 10 assists in 14 playoff games
Carolina Hurricanes, NHL: 2 goals in 2 games played
Some players are just impossible not to root for, from their hard-nosed, high-compete style to their infectious, ever-present smiles they always seem to wear. Drury is one of those players, and while he may not have the ceiling of a 100-point superstar, it feels like the last game of the Calder Cup Final will be the last he plays in the minors. If he didn’t prove it with his two-game, two-goal cameo, or incredible regular season production for a stacked team in the AHL, perhaps his explosive run to the AHL’s championship round will sell those still holding out.
While the easy comparison for Drury is the captain of his parent club, it’s an imperfect one (as, well, all comparisons are). His faceoff proclivity (80 percent success rate in his two NHL games), steady defensive game, ability to shine in all three phases from penalty killing, to power plays, to even strength, and hard-wired personality as a well-spoken leader all look the part of a potential future captain. So, while he probably doesn’t have the size of Jordan Staal to be that dominant, physical presence that effectively removes every top opposing line whenever he’s matched up with them, his ever-growing offensive toolkit points to a long career as a middle-six forward who does almost everything at a very high level. He’s become a sneaky-good finisher and puck handler, and seems to think the game two steps ahead of the opposition.
It’s a heck of a luxury, being able to ride out the twilight years of Staal’s career and see him continue to play excellent hockey, but while also having drafted and developed a similar version who may actually have more skill and finishing ability already than the big man does. As I’ve said many times, Drury is simply a Brind’Amour player, and while I don’t see him (or any prospect in the system, save for maybe Kochetkov) as untouchable, I get the feeling the head coach would fight very hard to keep him in town. Players who check all the boxes of “grit and grind” while also showing real offensive upside aren’t the most abundant prototype, so don’t be surprised if the Hurricanes hold onto him no matter how wild the offseason gets.
Brandon Stanley covers the Carolina Hurricanes and Los Angeles Kings here at THW. Born and raised in Raleigh, NC, in addition to writing about the Hurricanes for about five years now, he played in the Carolina Junior Canes program for another 15; hockey has always been his biggest passion. A graduate of North Carolina State University, Brandon also co-hosts and edits a podcast with two other writers (one of which, Alex Ohari, is also a writer here at THW) called Tracking the Storm. The pod covers everything Carolina Hurricanes, from prospects, to game recaps, and everything in between. Always available to chat anything hockey related, don’t hesitate to shoot him a tweet or DM anytime on Twitter @bwstanley26!